The practice of carving coconut shells dates back hundreds of years to the time of itinerant traders and sailors who could pass the time creating sophisticated souvenirs for family, friends and loved ones at home.
In the 19th century, this tradition took root in Mexico, but perhaps nowhere more so than 'San Juan de Ulua,' the infamous Veracruz prison where Mexican scrimshaw coconut banks most likely originated. To pass the time prisoners were permitted to carve coconuts, gourds and seeds which would then be sold on the prison steps as souvenirs.
The carvings, usually worked with nails, glass shards or whatever other scrap materials were available, are incredibly complex and sophisticated. A typical carver may have spent weeks laying out his design and then months executing it. The range in style, technique and design is enormous. The various techniques were sgraffito (shallow scratched etchings), heavy relief, reticulation (open faced fretwork) and inlay (usually in silver, concha nácar, and glass). Design motifs often include foliate patterns, animals, political figures, national symbols and sometimes religious iconography.
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